On the wall and nature: The ongoing Israeli war on the Palestinian environment
A Palestinian woman attempting to save her olive trees from being uprooted in order to make space for the apartheid wall. (Credits: Stop the Wall archive.)
In April 2002, the Israeli government declared its intention to build a massive “separation barrier” between Israel and the Occupied West Bank. Israeli leaders justified the decision on the convenient pretext of “security”. By the end of 2003, Israel had erected 143 kilometers of cement blocks on mostly Palestinian land, further exposing the true colonial intentions behind the Israeli endeavor. Indeed, according to the Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, 85% of the Wall is constructed in the occupied territories inside the West Bank, essentially a de facto annexation of Palestinian land, occupied since June 1967.1 Furthermore, B’Tselem highlights the destructive nature of the Wall, which breaks up the contiguity of “Palestinian urban and rural blocs and severs inter-community ties that had been forged and cemented over the course of many generations”.2
Now that the structure, which Palestinians call the “Apartheid Wall”, is near completion, its political significance, colonial aims and devastating impact on Palestinian communities are glaringly obvious, despite Israeli propaganda efforts to morally and legally justify its existence. Less obvious, however, is the long-term environmental damage as a consequence of the Apartheid Wall.
Ideology of destruction
It is essential that any sensible discussion of the Israeli wall is not confined to the cement and metall structure itself, for Israel’s exploitation of Palestinian land, natural resources and environment is as old as the Zionist ideology. Since its establishment on the ruins of over five hundred Palestinian villages and cities which were depopulated and destroyed, to this day Israel has continued to pursue the same lethal strategy. In a matter of a few decades, it has disfigured, beyond belief, the land inhabited by Palestinian Muslims, Christians and Jews for thousands of years.
“Palestine contains vast colonization potential, which the Arabs neither need nor are qualified to exploit,” wrote one of Israel’s founding fathers, and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to his son, Amos, in 1937.3 Zionist Israel, however, has done more than just “exploit” that “colonization potential”; it has also subjected historic Palestine to a relentless, cruel campaign of destruction that is yet to cease. This is likely to continue as long as Zionism prevails as a racist, hegemonic and ruthless ideology.
Since its very early days, in the mid to late 19th century, political Zionism has misled its followers in its depiction of historic Palestine. To encourage Jewish migration to the country and by way of providing a semblance of moral justification for Jewish settlement, Zionism constructed myths which remain a central theme to this day. According to early Zionists, for example, Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land”. It was also said to be an arid desert, awaiting Jewish colonists from Europe and elsewhere with the urgent mission to “make it bloom”.4
What the Zionists have done to Palestine, though, is rather inconsistent with their intellectual discourse, as racist, colonialist and exclusivist as it has always been. The land of Palestine, around 10,425 square miles from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea, became the subject of a cruel experiment, starting with the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and the destruction of their villages, land and crops in 1948. This exploitation of the land and its people has grown with intense fervor through subsequent generations.
The Apartheid Wall is but a stage in the ongoing Zionist campaign aimed at subduing Palestinian nature to serve its colonial ambitions.
Israel’s so-called “Separation Wall” did not separate Palestinians and Israelis, for that has already been realized through numerous laws and restrictions that are as old as the Israeli state itself.5 Instead, the Wall created yet more restrictions for Palestinians, who are now left isolated in Apartheid South Africa-style “Bantustans”.6 With hundreds of military checkpoints dotted throughout the West Bank, Israel’s separation strategy was transformed from isolating all Palestinians at once, into individualized confinement that is aimed at destroying any sense of Palestinian socioeconomic cohesion and continuity.
In order for the Israeli Wall to be built, tens of thousands of olive trees, some of which were 600 years old, were uprooted by Israeli bulldozers.7 The Israeli army did not hesitate in doing so, despite the fact that some of these trees were protected under international cultural heritage law. The destruction continues unabated. To make space for the Wall, thousands of acres of Palestinian land have also been burnt, along with their trees and adjacent habitat. In their place, Israel has constructed a massively fortified eight-meter high structure of cement and metal, totally alien to the Palestinian landscape and accompanied by the paraphernalia of occupation, including watchtowers, electric fences and surveillance cameras.
Not that Israel had a healthy relationship with the land of Palestine prior to the construction of the Wall, starting in 2002, but the Wall came to exemplify Israel’s colonial exploitation in a magnitude that can only be compared to the Nakba – the destruction of the Palestinian homeland in 1947-48. With a total length of over 400 kilometers, which is projected to reach 700 kilometers once finished, the Wall directly and adversely harms hundreds of Palestinian communities and massive tracts of Palestinian land.8
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA oPT) describes the physical makeup of the Wall as a “barrier (that) consists of concrete walls, fences, ditches, razor wire, groomed sand paths, an electronic monitoring system, patrol roads, and a buffer zone”.9 Of the 84 massive metal gates installed by the Israeli military in various sections of the Wall in November 2017, “only nine of these gates were opened daily; ten were opened only a few days a week and during the olive harvest season; 65 gates were only opened for the olive harvest.”10 The sad, but predictable outcome is that large swathes of arable Palestinian land are suffering from neglect, opening up the stage for Jewish settlers and the Israeli army to confiscate yet more of it.
The Apartheid Wall has also negatively impacted Palestinian water resources, which are already devastated by continuous Israeli theft and illegal dumping of toxic waste.11 Excessive Israeli water consumption; the erratic use of dams; and the denial of Palestinians of the right to their own water or the digging of new wells, have all left vast and possibly irreversible environmental consequences. They have fundamentally altered the aquatic ecosystem altogether. The Wall is another major threat to Palestinian water security. “The Segregation Wall construction has isolated wells, springs and cisterns, and damaged or destroyed water infrastructure, especially irrigation networks,” argues the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. “Of the 173 directly affected communities, 60 percent reported that the Wall construction has impacted their domestic and/or agricultural water resources.”12
Hundreds of thousands of trees have been uprooted since the initial phases of Israel’s Wall construction. The price of that physical monstrosity is often omitted from any discussion relevant to the Wall, and, in fact, to the entire Israeli colonial project. According to Al Jazeera Interactive, 2.5 million trees have been uprooted by Israel since the start of its military occupation in June 1967.13According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), “The Segregation Wall construction frequently results in land degradation, fragmentation of ecosystems, erosion and compaction of soil, arbitrary disposal of waste, and accumulation of dust on agricultural lands and trees. This impacts land productivity and severely diminishes the agricultural production and income of Palestinian farmers.”14
These are only examples that barely touch the surface of the Israeli Wall’s impact on the Palestinian environment. The harm is already felt in numerous other areas, including waste management by Palestinian communities, especially those entrapped behind or encircled within the Wall itself. At least 20 percent of these communities have reported that the physical alteration resulting from the mammoth construction has hampered their solid waste or wastewater disposal systems.15 The degree of direct health impact of the Wall is likely to be fathomed in more somber details in coming years. In fact, the adverse environmental impact goes beyond landscape and vegetation, into the destruction of Palestinian husbandry and wildlife. Imad Atrash, director of the Palestinian Wildlife Society, tells of an equally tragic story. “As far as animal husbandry is concerned, when the Wall was built, some of the males and females were on opposite sides,” he said, leading to the predictable outcome of their eventual demise. “Animals like the red fox and gazelles, wolves and moles (and) even some birds, like the stone curlew, chukar and all lark species, are all under threat of extinction.”16
Coexistence versus exploitation
The truth is the Apartheid Wall and its destructive path are only part of a long, painful trajectory of destruction that dates back to the very early idea of Zionism. All the land Israel has taken and occupied has suffered from environmental degradation in one way or another, with its harmful effects being conveniently shifted towards Palestinian villages and cities.Israel’s aggressive, illegal settlement-building practices have not only uprooted, segregated and dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, but have also systematically devastated the surrounding environment through the use of excessive water consumption and other unsustainable agricultural methods. Moreover, it has been estimated that some 80 percent of the rubbish generated by Israeli settlements is being dumped in the West Bank. Various Israeli industries and the army are also known to discard toxic waste on Palestinian land.17 Furthermore, over the past few years, Israel has systematically moved polluting factories to the West Bank. It has done so by building so-called “industrial zones”, which not only use and exploit cheap Palestinian labor, but also release their toxic byproducts into the environment without regard to the wellbeing of Palestinians living nearby.18
Israel has also continued its decades-long practice of uprooting Palestinian olive and fruit tree groves. This strategy, meant to sever the connection Palestinians have to their land, has not only resulted in the loss of livelihood for thousands of Palestinian farmers, but has also caused soil erosion and accelerated desertification of parts of occupied Palestine.19
The Apartheid Wall is the latest, and perhaps most ruinous addition, to this sordid history of exploitation, destruction and complete disregard of the environment, at a time that global environmental problems are the number one threat to the future of humanity. While Palestinians have proven themselves far more than “qualified” to co-exist with nature than to “exploit” it, Zionist Israel has done the exact opposite. The cost of the ongoing Israeli exploitation, however, is not only being paid by the Palestinian people but also by the environment as well. The evidence before our eyes further accentuates the colonial, selfish nature of the Zionist project and its totally visionless founders.
5 “The Separation Barrier”, ibid.
6 “The Zionist Union’ Plan for a Palestinian Bantustan”, Middle East Monitor, March 10, 2015.
7 Abeer Al Butmeh, “Environmental Injustice in Palestine: Facts and Figures”, Pengon FoE Palestine, accessed 2 September 2019.
10“The Separation Barrier”, ibid.
11 Vv. Aa. “The Segregation Wall Impacts on Palestinian Environment”, Publications of the Applied Research Institute, December 2015.
12 Vv. Aa. “The Segregation Wall Impacts on Palestinian Environment”, ibid.
13 Zena Tahaan, “Israel’s Settlements: 50 Years of Land Theft Explained”, Al Jazeera Interactive, 21 November 2017.
14 “Barrier Impacts on the Environment and Rural Livelihoods – UNRWA Factsheet”, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, accessed 2 September 2019.
15 Vv. Aa. “The Segregation Wall Impacts on Palestinian Environment”, ibid.
16 Miriam Deprez, “Even Animals Are Divided by Israel’s Wall and Occupation – Threats to the Local Environment”, Middle East Monitor, 20 August 2018.
17 Yousef Abu Safieh, “The Radical Transformation of Palestine’s Environment”, Al Jazeera English, 2 May 2012.